Photographer of the Month Interview: Tula Top | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, August 2015:   Tula Top

We send out our thanks to Tula Top, our featured guest photographer. We really appreciate Tula's time, and the stunning photography he's shared with us! Please visit his links to see more beautiful work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start with photography?

Since I was young I've always been drawn toward scenes of natural beauty, cultivated by frequent family camping trips to the Oregon coast. However, my first genuine foray into photography most directly hails from my interest in a special segment of aquarium keeping called aquascaping, which entails creating underwater landscapes using live plants and natural materials such as gravel and driftwood. Photography was just a way to document the progression of my aquascapes, and when I found point-and-shoots to be frustratingly inadequate for capturing images of my fast-moving fish, I upgraded to a Canon 20D DSLR.

When I returned home to Portland, OR, for fellowship after my medical residency, I tore down all my tanks and sold them off, but the camera equipment of course came with me. My med school buddy Jeff Chen, who'd stuck around Portland to finish his doctorate and had been doing a lot of hiking in the interval, invited me one incredibly verdant spring day on a hike to Pup Creek Falls, and I captured an image of it titled "Cinema Paradiso" that still hangs as a 30"x45" metal print on my wall today (not bad for 8 megapixels!). It's been a love affair with photography ever since, and somehow throughout my medical career I've managed to squeezed in enough light-chasing adventures to keep me feeling like a halfway legitimate landscape photographer.

:: I've noticed a lot of people in the medical field are also into photography. Why do you think this is the case? Some might think it's because they have more disposable income. Do you think it might be more that many doctors are very detail orientated?

I actually had to confer with fellow physician-photographer Dylan Toh (one half of the dynamic Adelaide-based duo known as Everlook Photography) about this because I was racking my brain about what natural connections there might be, and I was coming up empty. In fact, Dylan helped validate my own hunch that photography was more about an escape from medicine rather than a natural extension of it.

As physicians, we see a lot of traumatizing situations, both physically and emotionally, and helping patients and their families recover and cope can take a lot out of you. And anymore, at least here in the US, medicine unfortunately is becoming less and less profession and more and more industry, top-heavy with bean-counters and bureaucrats that results in cumbersome and sometimes crippling paper-pushing, hoop-jumping, and penny-pinching. It would all get pretty disillusioning and downtrodden at times if it weren't for the sanctity of the doctor-patient-family relationship I treasure so much and find so deeply rewarding. Heading into nature with camera in tow in search of beauty is actually diametrically opposed to medicine, where wave after wave of suffering, pain, and pathology are incessantly beating down your door.

That said, over the years I've come to interweave my philosophical approach to patient care with that of my photography. Every once in a while I'll editorialize about this interplay in the captions that accompany some of my photos, particularly as it relates to developing a keen awareness of the many little miracles--some less obvious than others--that comprise the grander miracle of mere existence itself. I think it helps me take notice of scenes within scenes that I'd otherwise overlook without that fuller appreciation of the delicate beauty of life.

:: Your bio on your website mentions that you bring what you learn from medicine into photography. Can you describe what that is, and how it translates?

I touched on this in the previous question a little. But to expound just a bit, in my particular field of practice (hospice and palliative medicine), I help patients deal with a lot of life-threatening situations. And when I say life-threatening, I'm not just talking about the difference between life and death, breathing and not breathing, but also--and perhaps more so--the difference between being alive and really living, even in the face of a debilitating and/or life-changing condition. There's beauty all around you if you can learn to attune your senses to it. And it doesn't always have to be about witnessing an atomic sky or getting a perfectly glassy mirror surface on a reflecting pond or lake. Wherever you are, whatever might be going on around you, chances are there's something good and beautiful worth remembering even if it's mired in less than pleasant surroundings or conditions. That doesn't always mean I come away with a portfolio-level photograph or even a photograph at all, and I'm certainly far from the Zen master I'm idealizing here, but I do try to enjoy the experience of photography as much as I can because, quite frankly, there are plenty of far worse circumstances in which I could find myself than being out in nature, camera in hand.

:: Your portfolio is diverse, but you seem to have an emphasis on waterfalls. Obviously you live in a region that is packed with amazing waterfalls, but what about that subject draws you in? Given that the area you photograph in is also one of the most photographed in the U.S., how do you keep the subject fresh for you, and what challenge does that bring?

I've always been a creature of the water...perhaps not like a water sports adrenaline junkie, but inasmuch as it represents a flowing of energy and the ability to assume the shape of the vessel in which it resides or passes, moving water entrains my emotions and helps calm my soul. With waterfalls, there's a heightened element of kinetic energy that's particularly invigorating. I'm also fascinated by their myriad sizes and forms, from more diminutive yet graceful cascades like Fairy Falls to the more monolithic juggernauts like Tamanawas Falls or Abiqua Falls. And then some, like Falls Creek Falls in Washington State or Proxy Falls in the Central Oregon Cascades, manage to combine both power and complexity into one awe-inspiring whole. Those, and Ramona Falls near Mount Hood, are probably my favorites.

Living in a region with such a high concentration of waterfalls definitely has its advantages and has no doubt shaped who I am today as a photographer. This area is so rich with photographic talent that whenever I go out to a particular location, I try to research and study existing photographs of it expressly to avoid replicating images that are already out there. Being able to visit a waterfall over and over again in a region blessed with four distinct seasons allows me to at once develop a familiarity with my subject yet maintain an invigorating freshness to it. Conceptually, I actually approach waterfall photography as if I might photograph a human model, with my personal obligation to that model being to portray him or her in as unique, beautiful, and emotive a manner as I'm capable of.

:: You are very active in the social media realms. What about that form of communication do you feel is beneficial to photographers, what drawbacks have you witnessed, and how do you see it playing out 5-10 years down the road?

There are huge pros and some definite cons...and in fact I've started to scale back my participation in such arenas significantly because of those downsides. Nowadays I'm most interactive on Facebook, where I generally know that people who have befriended or are following me for my photography have done so willfully and without any pretense of secondary gain. That of course is not to say that every interaction is like that on sites like 500px--in fact, I've met many wonderful photographers and friends through that site that I might never have met otherwise--but in relative terms there's far, far too much of that "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" stuff that goes on there.

At first the accolades were flattering, and certainly the ego got stroked, but after a while the superficiality and ulterior motives behind some people's commenting began to wear on me. I also began to see so many instances of photographers calling out other photographers--sometimes legitimately, sometimes not, and rarely with any tact or consideration of appropriate time and forum to offer critique--that it became unbearable, and I finally stopped posting new work there even though I was rarely the target of such criticism myself. It just became a very superficial and unpleasant night club-type atmosphere there, and I've never been a fan of night clubs.

The other downside stems from the upside, and that's related to how quickly information and knowledge can get disseminated in this electronic age. On the one hand, the sharing of tips and processes related to photography via the Internet has exponentially accelerated the learning curve for many aspiring artists--myself included. On the other hand, it seems that human nature is such that when you first learn how to use a shiny new tool, you seem to want to wield it for every single task set before you regardless of whether it's appropriate to do so or not--and often to excess even when it is appropriate. HDR, the Orton effect, and light bleeding are three prime examples.

As they first originated and when still used judiciously, I think they can provide very tasteful enhancements to an image. Now, though, you see these tools being applied so liberally and indiscriminately that many artists' 'photographs' are beginning to converge toward a uniformity in style and sometimes even composition, and in my opinion that greatly waters down and even morphs the medium into something else altogether.

Novelty is not always the pathway to originality, and newness wears off very quickly in the Internet age. I'm honestly not sure where or how things will be in 5-10 years, but for my part I'd prefer to forge my own steady and centered path even as the prevailing artistic ethos may shift wildly over time from one extreme to another.

:: I can appreciate a good story, and I enjoy reading your descriptions from different adventures you go on. What spawned the lengthy descriptions and storytelling aspect of your images?

I've always enjoyed literature, and back before medical training and work began to consume so much of my time, I read pretty avidly. I most enjoyed authors such as Clive Barker or Don DeLillo who seemed to have a preternatural manner of sculpting the English language in novel ways to describe situations, concepts, and abstractions that really left intricate, powerful, and lasting impressions on me as a reader. It's the same with photography, I think: Inviting the viewer or reader to think a little bit, to put some work into considering the final product, helps create a deeper understanding of and connection to the story or image. I know I certainly appreciate the finer nuances of things that I have to work a little harder to understand than those things that are spoon-fed to me or shoved down my throat.

So without any formal training in either medium, I've tried to be an astute observer of what qualities pique and sustain my interest versus those that don't. Along the way I've tried to incorporate some of the written floridity into my captions, because for me the image should not just be simple, empty-caloried eye candy that offers only transient pleasure, but rather vital nourishment that can replenish and sustain the soul. When I can, I try to document a story that helps my audience appreciate and enjoy the organic and dynamic process of photography in its entirety as well as some broader aspect of life itself, not just the mere aesthetics of the final image. I think--or at least I hope--the collective body of visual and written work helps connect me to my audience to a far greater degree than a portfolio full of pretty but narratively vapid images ever could.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic equipment?

A tough call, but I'd have to go with my Platypus Hoser water reservoir retrofitted with a CamelBak Ergo Hydrolock and Big Bite Valve (the one that comes with the Platypus is just too finicky and annoying). I love being able to stay hydrated on the move without having to take my backpack off to reach for stowed water bottles.

:: What is the scariest thing that has happened to you while photographing?

Anymore these days, it seems photography is the new fishing, and fish tales are rampant in social media circles. As a telling of adventure, I'm happy to indulge in a well-written narrative; as a vehicle for self-promotion and egotism, though, I'm far less impressed. In any case, I don't really have any harrowing personal near-death tales to relay, though one time coming back in near-darkness from a solo sunset hike to East Zig Zag Mountain near Burnt Lake and Mount Hood, I did misstep in a heavily vegetated area just flanking the trail downslope and slid entirely off the pathway, needing to grab onto some foliage to pull myself back up to safety. That certainly got the heart going pretty good!

But really, my scariest experience involved my mom misstepping and rolling down a steep hill on our very first venture to Mossy Grotto Falls. The full description accompanies my image "Mossy Grotto Falls I", but suffice it to say Mom made it through and is hiking as vigorously as ever. But I swear, I thought I was going to have to be interviewed by the local news stations and papers that day...

:: Your portfolio is primarily centered in the Pacific Northwest area of the U.S. Are there plans to head out for shooting in any other locations in the future?

Other than a trip to Norway in September, I don't have anything planned. My job is such that it's really hard to get away from it even when I'm scheduled to be off, and that's been a bit of a psychological hindrance to planning more extended adventures. But I'm hoping Norway is a stepping stone to other big plans.

I did have to cancel a trip to Patagonia earlier this year due to a knee ailment, but it still ranks high on my list. I'd like to get there before everyone's shot the heck out of it and the wonder of it all wears off. My sense, though, is that in a place like Patagonia, that's nigh impossible, and as always my goal is to put an original and intimate spin on my images even if they're of oft-shot icons like Fitz Roy or Torres del Paine.

But I'd also love one day to just hop in my SUV and drive for days on end, going and stopping wherever whimsy and instinct take me and photographing whatever the heart compels me to.

:: When it comes to the post-processing side of things, I've seen you involved with a number of online discussions. Where is your personal line to draw when it comes to how much is too much processing?

At the root of it all, I want people to know me as a photographer, and thus to regard my work as photography. I capture and create images as a way of conveying the magic of what God and nature chose to offer to me at any particular moment or place, and fundamentally isn't that what nature photography's about?

In social media circles, however, and in particular any photo-sharing site where exposure is dictated by some form of popularity or ratings system, I've observed an inevitable collective devolution toward producing images that cater to the lowest common denominator. Often it encourages artists to push the boundaries of what I would consider photography more into the no-holds-barred realm of digital imaging or even digital painting.

It's all art, no doubt, but if you're compositing in skies or a moon from another place and time, warping mountain peaks to grossly unnatural proportions, or painting in golden light where it never actually occurred, can the image that results really be regarded as a photograph of an actual scene or event? Those who say yes, it is, but choose not to disclose their methods clearly feel like they have something to hide from their audience (and to these people I would simply ask: Why?). They're also defiantly saying, "God and nature aren't good enough for me," as well as, "My audience isn't smart enough to know the difference between what's real and what's not, nor are they refined enough to care."

I realize saying all this might irk a lot of artists, but the more we as aficionados and partakers of photography tolerate such a no-rules approach to it, the farther and farther we move away from its modal origins, I think. Deviation without discipline is not the same as progress and evolution.

That said, that doesn't mean I don't do compositing in some fashion myself. Generally, though, it's only done to overcome the limitations of the equipment at the time of capture (e.g., focus-stacking, exposure bracketing) or for special effects (re-introducing and maximizing waterborne reflections with a circular polarizer--see "Shine"), and if I do opt to do something more elaborate that deviates significantly from the authenticity of the actual scene, I feel I owe it to my audience, to the wonders of nature, and to photography as a history-laden artform and medium, to disclose that level of manipulation outright and upfront.

:: What was the best piece of advice that you ever received in terms of photography? What advice would you pass on to another starting photographer?

I saw Gary Randall present his work and speak at a local camera club a few years ago. He said he tells people who are just starting out in photography, particularly those that tend to gauge the value of their own work by comparing them with the output of more seasoned or professional photographers, that we're all on the same journey of self-discovery, just perhaps at different points along the path. I like that. To me it means go at your own pace, in your own direction, and don't worry so much about what others do as it relates to finding yourself and crafting your vision as a photographer. And to that I'd add that the pursuit of photography is endless: Photography is the personal journey itself, not some preconceived, idealized destination.

:: What's the biggest struggle you're currently having with photography?

Heh, I think you've already caught an earful (eyeful?) of it in some of my answers above. There's an awful lot of silly and reciprocally damaging one-upmanship that happens in social media/photo-sharing circles, whereby some have turned their photography into a vehicle for competition at the expense of others rather than a means of communicating an original, meaningful, or personal message or emotion.

It feels like over the past decade or more, society's experienced a general recidivism of selflessness and good social graces back toward more self-centered and inconsiderate times, and some of that gets amped up in tight photographic circles where elbows are constantly rubbing up against each other, albeit perhaps electronically. It's unfortunate, because if people had to actually say what they wrote directly to another person's face, I'm thinking they'd find a more refined and appropriate way of communicating their thoughts...or perhaps even demonstrate the discretion to keep it to themselves.

Nowadays, we all risk our necks putting our personal artwork out there, and too many people cloak their blunt-force criticism and their subconscious bias toward conformity of style and vision in the guise of 'honesty.'

My struggle, then, is embracing the unprecedented upshot of a platform that allows me to reach such a broad and wide-ranging audience nearly instantaneously while inevitably exposing myself to boorish behaviors or knee-jerk reactions and misunderstandings. I often have trouble letting that stuff go unchallenged because of my strong convictions, and that sometimes gets me mired in some pretty passionate and lengthy debates. But as British parliamentarian Edmund Burke is believed to have said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," and if faced with such a choice I've vowed not to forsake doing what's right for doing what's easy.

:: In your mind, what are the most undervalued pieces of photography equipment?

At first I was going to say a sturdy but (for me) lightweight tripod, but I think most people who pursue photography passionately come to appreciate just how critical a solid and stable foundation for their camera is. So instead, I'll say the most undervalued components at least for my kind of work are a high-quality circular polarizer and a powerful air blower, such as a Giottos Rocket Blaster. High-quality CPLs (Heliopan is my brand of choice) have hydrophobic multi-coatings that are highly scratch-resistant and make it a breeze to blow dust or water droplets off with an air blower. There's a role for a lens cloth, of course, but after a while in splashy or rainy shooting conditions it can become too saturated with water or contaminated with lens-marring skin oils to be of very much help in keeping the lens clean and clear.

:: You wrote a great story on your blog about a patient of yours who had tremendous impact on you, and in that post the patient talks about hoping he can make one last trip to Philly to visit family and experience some of the things he enjoyed for one last time. What is one place or photo in your collection that you would like to revisit and relive if your days were coming to an end? What about that experience in that location sticks with you?

Before I answer, I just have to express how impressed I am by the depth of your questions, and I really appreciate the amount of time and effort it took not only to go through my portfolio (and read all those long-winded captions!) but to tailor the interview so specifically to my work. I'm sure all the previous interviewees felt similarly grateful, but I want to explicitly thank you for your incredible thoughtfulness and personal touch.

It's so difficult to choose one...certainly there are memories such as the morning of one of the most spectacular and photographically productive sunrises I've yet witnessed (see "Outer Sanctum" and other images from Mirror Lake) or the unplanned, dumb-luck magic moments of right-place-right-time like "Hope" or "Hoodwinked," but none resonate more intensely in my soul as the memorial hike I, Erin Babnik, TJ Thorne, and Alex Noriega did in honor of photographer and friend Jeff Swanson, who a few weeks prior had succumbed rather unexpectedly to melanoma. There was just something powerful in the air that day, and we arrived atop Tom Dick and Harry Mountain and its front-row view of Mount Hood with ample time for each of us to silently muse upon the fragility and sheer magic of life.

We scouted around the area both together and apart, ate our food, and managed to photograph a group toast to Jeff before the sun set. With full knowledge of the clear skies that were being forecast, we all had pretty much agreed the evening prior that this day would be about anything but photography. Against the odds, though, some really nice clouds hung around for sunset and whimsically graced the skies above Mount Hood, resulting in "If Tomorrow Never Comes" (monochrome) and "Breathe" (color). It was as if Jeff, as fun-loving and good-natured as they came, looked down on the sobriety of our mood and said, Hey, you're not out here because life is frivolous and tragic--you're out here because life is funny and really damn beautiful. Here, let me remind you...

:: You deal with inspirational moments in nature, and in life, given your profession. How does one influence the other, in life and in art?

Ultimately, I think my line of work makes me able to appreciate the little miracles of life and existence just a bit more than the average person who doesn't have to deal with matters of potential life and death day in and day out. For some people this might seem all too scary and overwhelming, and they may close their eyes to it. But for me, I find it all incredibly life-affirming, and I keep my eyes wide open so I can take it all in. Ugliness in all its forms must exist on some level in order for us to really be able to appreciate the poignancy of those things we consider beautiful.

Maybe I'm over thinking it, but perhaps it's my calling to sift through the chaos of life in order to unearth and share its hidden wonders. The difference is in palliative medicine I'm limited to doing it one painstaking patient encounter at a time...whereas photography allows me to reach a larger but hopefully no less connected audience with each new photograph I'm blessed to have the privilege to share. My intended message is pretty simple: Life is a miracle and can be stunningly beautiful, even its darkest hours.

Tula Top

"There's beauty all around you if you can learn to attune your senses to it. And it doesn't always have to be about witnessing an atomic sky or getting a perfectly glassy mirror surface on a reflecting pond or lake. Wherever you are, whatever might be going on around you, chances are there's something good and beautiful worth remembering even if it's mired in less than pleasant surroundings or conditions."

Tula Top's Links

Photographer Spotlight Interviews

   • Want to be a featured photog?

Students of the Aperture Academy are eligible for special discounts and promotions from our partners.
Bay Photo SinghRay Filters SmugMug
Nik Software Induro Tripods thinkTANK

Photo Workshops

   → Photography Workshops
   → Photoshop® Classes
   → Meet Our Team
   → Student Hall-of-Fame
photo classes

Other Cool Stuff

   → Past Workshop Photos
   → How-To Articles
   → Photographer of the Month
photography lessons

Contact Us

   → Contact Us
   → About Us
   → Site Map

© 2009-2024 Aperture Academy, Inc.